After his boss asked him to cook up some road kill, Steve Jaeger realized he was in hell.
My first job out of chef school in 1976 is on the books officially as one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. I went into it all bright eyed and brimming with a graduate’s enthusiasm and within a couple of months hated getting out of bed in the morning. The woman who owned the place was a nasty a human being as I have ever met and I use the term “human being” loosely. We had a dishwasher who had been working for her since the place opened. Freddy was a near-illiterate hillbilly with a seventh-grade education. In the three years he’d been working for her, she’d never given him a raise, and when I found out I badgered her until she did, all the way up to minimum wage. Then she started deducting breakage from his check. That was one of her more humane acts.
The good lord, though, smiled upon me and from the worst job, I moved onto what I think of as one of my best. I took a position as chef in a small French Country Inn out in Virginia Hunt Country. At 22 years old and still wet behind the ears, it was a very risky move for the owner to take, but she took it and I had probably the most formative years of my culinary life. This was in the mid-seventies when even many high-end restaurants served frozen desserts and canned fruit. We baked our own breads, butchered our own meats, grew fresh herbs in a garden out back, things that are no big deal today but back then were almost unheard of. I moved on after a couple of years but I never forgot how much I loved working out there and always knew I’d jump at the chance to get back into a similar situation.
I had my chance about seven years later when I got a call from an ex boss. He said he’d been out to eat at a German Country Inn a bit further out than where I’d worked before, but the moment he sat down and read the menu he thought of me. I was working in a sports bar in the town where I was living, marking time until something better came along, I went out and met the owners and they seemed as excited to get me in their kitchen as I was to get into it myself. Two weeks later, I walked into hell, Country Inn style. For good measure, I dragged my wife along, who would run the front of the house.
The couple that owned the place were not restaurant people, but the vast majority of owners aren’t. Most lifers will tell you that 85% of people that own restaurants have absolutely no business in the business, and these people were the poster children for that theory. Mr. Owner was an electrical contractor by trade who’d sold his business and made a pot of money. He was the guy who always used to drink with his buddies and fantasize about how great it would be if they owned their own bar. He was in his late sixties and was a very cordial, nice fellow when he wasn’t drinking. Unfortunately, he almost never stopped drinking.
Mrs. Owner was the real German of the duo. She came to this country as a young woman and always though how wonderful it would be to educate these crude Americans, or Amis as she called us on great German cuisine and culture. Mrs. was 25 years younger than Mr., and they’d produced a young son who was now about 10. Mr. already had a grown family from his first marriage, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his second stint at fatherhood.
Rounding out the happy family was Mr.’s father, a 96-year-old gent everyone called Papa, who lived downstairs and would wander around the place all day, asking, “What time is it?” At first, I thought this was a manifestation of dementia but later found out that they told Papa that he couldn’t have a cocktail until 5:00.
I got a red flag when I walked in my first morning and met Bruce who was working as the interim chef and who would be my sous-chef. Bruce was a really nice young guy and talented, he just didn’t have a lot of experience. He also had no idea he was only the interim chef until I walked in the door. I was able to smooth things over with him fairly quickly but the whole incident gave me an idea of the kind of people I was working with.
A few weeks later I got another surprise when Mrs. Came back from the airport with a German kid in tow who was to be my intern. He spoke very little English, which was OK because I spoke no German at all except, yes, no, thank you and shit. He got a sweet deal, though: for almost no money at all he was going to live in a crappy little attic room, cook breakfast by himself, work for me and do what ever shit job Mr. & Mrs. Came up with.
I also learned pretty quickly that Mrs. was a complainer. She’d grouse about anything from the weather to the size of the lemons we got, but mostly she complained about the price of venison. When the dinner menu had been written some time before, Mrs., who was the brains of the outfit, insisted that any good German menu had venison on it. Mr. had a drink to celebrate and then without any regard to the actual cost of the meat, they pulled a price out of thin air and stuck it on the menu. By the time I showed up, Mrs. had realized the errors of her ways and was sure that I was just the man to find venison at a more reasonable cost than what those robbers have been selling it to her for.
The bad news was that back in those days there was exactly one company in the entire area that sold venison, and they set the price, and the price was high. The other bad news was that these were the times before computers, when printing menus cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars, so they were only done once or twice per year at the most. I told them there wasn’t much to be done and jokingly said, “Unless you want to go and shoot your own”. They both perked up at that but I quickly added that hey could be shut down by the health department for serving uninspected meat, so let’s just put that one to bed. Mrs., though, would not take no for an answer, “Vy iss this meat zo expensive? Vy can’t you find me a better price?” She became obsessed with finding cheap deer meat; it became her white whale.
One afternoon Mrs. and I were meeting with a salesman in the dining room that looked out over the woods. It was a really beautiful view, a sloping hill ending at a small stream with woods on the far side. I’d sometimes sit out there in the mornings and write my specials or do my ordering. As we were all sitting there chatting, a small buck came wandering out of the woods and stopped to drink at the stream, what an idyllic scene. Mrs. jumped up, ran to the stairs, and started to scream to the German kid who lived in the attic, and he came flying down the steps with a hunting rifle. He threw open the window and let off a shot that, thank God, doesn’t hit anywhere near the deer who trots back into the woods none the wiser.
The salesman and I, meanwhile, are looking at each other with the same stupid, stunned look on our faces and ringing in our ears. The salesman departs and I have a wonderful day riding the German kid who lives in the attic about his German military training and marksmanship.
Some time passed (Mr., in a drunken rage, makes me fire Bruce not long before this) and on a cold Autumn morning I was in the kitchen with the German kid who lived in the attic preparing Sunday Brunch when Mrs. burst into the kitchen all excited. She had just been driving and found a deer on the side of the road. It must have just happened because it was still warm and it looks completely perfect!
She wanted me and the kid to jump in the truck to scoot out and pick the thing up. I started ticking off all my arguments about serving road kill in a restaurant, but Mr., who’s already on his third Mimosa of the morning, cut me off and told me if I know what’s good for me I’ll have my ass out in that truck. The kids, who don’t need any excuse to drive the truck, were already out the door, so here we were, heading west on a frosty morning to pry some road pizza off the side of US Rte 50 and haul it back to feed it to our unsuspecting customers.
Mrs. led us in her Mercedes to the scene, where we pulled off the road. The highway there, like in most of the county, was only two lanes with a narrow shoulder, and there was a two-foot gully the deer was on the far side of.
Because the shoulder was so narrow, the truck was still partially in the road so cars would have to cross partially into the oncoming lane to get around us. The kid and I hopped out and Mrs. Went on about how beautiful the deer was and lets just one, two, three put it in back. The kid and I each grabbed an end and move the carcass up to the back of the truck.
By this time, there were cars stooping behind up to witness two guys in kitchen whites manhandling a dead deer out of a ditch onto the side of the highway next to a truck with an Inn’s name painted on it. Any advertising is good advertising as they say. The kid and I decided to give he deer the old one, two, three, so we swung one, two three and heaved it up and plop, it landed right back down on the ground. For those of you who don’t know where the term “dead weight” originated, it came from two out of shape hunters trying to wrestle a deer carcass in their cart or sled or whatever way back when. Mrs. Stood off to the side offering moral encouragement like, “hurry up” and “Vat iss wrong wit you two?”
It took us a good 10 minutes to push, inch, and shove that dead son of a bitch into the back of the truck, and by the time the kid and I were heading back to the Inn we were covered both in sweat and deer hair. I had the prospect of having to spend the rest of the day like this and was none too thrilled about it. When we got back to the Inn, the German kid, Mr., and his little kid took the deer off to skin and butcher it. They discovered pretty quickly that the animal was not in the pristine condition that Mrs. thought it was. The only reason it had been warm was that it had been laying in the sun and one entire side of the poor thing was completely stove in from having been hit by some vehicle traveling at high speed. They hauled it with the tractor off into the woods to let nature take its course. Thank God they didn’t decide to save any of the parts that weren’t damaged.
I only lasted a few more months at the job. The place was crazy, and Mr. and Mrs. were nearly as vile as my first boss. Mr. drank himself into a stupor pretty much every night and actually fired my pantry cook in the middle of a busy Saturday night because she wouldn’t drop what she was doing to make their kid a chocolate mousse. My last day there was one of my happiest days in the business. They promoted my sous-chef even though I warned him he’d rue the day he took the job, and sure enough he didn’t last a month. He quit with a bit more style than I did. He walked out of the kitchen on a Sunday and in full view of the diners eating on the sun porch, unzipped and pissed all over Mr.’s Mercedes. Now, why hadn’t I thought of that?